Debra Jo Rupp rehearses with Kim Stauffer.
Debra Jo Rupp rehearses with Kim Stauffer. (Photos by James Warwick / Chester Theatre)

CHESTER -- A young man disappears. The son of an internationally known economist who often often speaks abroad in Africa, Paul has taken the route his father often took, and on the day he is supposed to come home, he vanishes.

He chooses to vanish.

What would make someone deliberately leave his life behind? And what has he done to the people he has left?

J.T. Rogers' "Madagascar" has opened Chester Theatre's 25th-anniverary season.

Debra Jo Rupp appears with Kim Stauffer and Paul O'Brien in the three-person cast, directed by James Warwick.

Three people come to the same hotel room in Rome at three different times -- Paul's mother, Lily, stands here five years ago, as she waits to meet him on the night before he vanishes. Paul's twin sister, June, speaks from three days ago, and Nathan, an old family friend, in the present.

The structure sounds like a series of overlapping monologues, but Rupp said the experience feels intensely interactive. The three actors in "Madagascar" never leave the stage, and they respond to each other in each time-frame.

"They relate to each other throughout," Warwick agreed

Lily, the mother, may stand in the center of the stage trying to work out the meaning of some past event, and her daughter may stand close behind her, informing her thoughts.

But she is talking, chiefly, to the audience. Piece by piece, in remembered conversations, arguments and admissions, the people Paul has left behind build an understanding of him, and of the past he could not bear.

They reveal Arthur, his father -- influential, brilliant and always absent -- Lily, Paul's "rigidly opinionated" mother, taking her children to museums and on vacations, teaching them to name the monuments of Rome and struggling to relate to them -- June, Paul's twin sister, who thought she knew her brother at the bone -- and Nathan, an old admirer drawn closer to the family as the family unravels.

"Their redemption is that they are so honest," Rupp said.

They are asking themselves what they have done to force Paul to such an extreme, and gradually they acknowledge pain they have caused and fill in the gaps in the story.

It is a mystery drawn in "sense memory and reappraisal of the past," Warwick said.

Rogers "is a wonderful writer," he said, "and he doesn't cheat. He gives you every pointer, but you have to dig for it."

Rupp said Byam Stevens, Chester Theater's artistic director, has a name for bringing this kind of intelligent and beautifully written work to the stage.

"This is what Byam does," she said, "and it's good to have in the Berkshires."

Warwick finds poetry in the script, in moments like Lily's description of a trip to Mexico and snorkling with Paul in a sea filled with black fish and luminescent light.

"He distills words," he said.

"He uses lauguage," Rupp said. "Not many people do these days."

Rogers' play is "delicate and beautiful," Warwick said. "It's an enormous pleasure, working on it. And it's funny. Wit, humor, turning on a dime."

The humor depends on context, he said, and comes often in sharp observations about human interactions or lack of them, like Lily's frustration with the person on every plane flight who inevitably asks her what do you do?

And the humor may have an edge of sadness. That small-talk question chafes Lily because she has no answer.

"He truthfully doesn't manipulate or sentimentalize," Warwick said. "When it hits, it hits hard."

"There's no crying," Rupp said, in a play Warwick directs, and he agreed that he has no patience with sentimentality and self-indulgence.

"Our job is to allow the audience in and let them feel," he said.

And Rogers' play asks the audience to "show up and participate."

"'Madagascar' is not a musical, not a light entertainment," he said.

The audience has to pay attention to solve the mystery.

Rupp finds pleasure in paying attention to the script as an actor.

"When you work on it, you see new things every time. You listen to what someone else has been saying, and you think ‘oh' ..."

Warwick echoes her ‘oh' -- gently and playfully giving it different intonations.

"She keeps digging at things," he said. "I can see her working. If you ever hear Debra Jo say ‘oh,' work it out."

He inflects the short word to mean different things: It's a voyage of discovery. I've never thought of that before. That didn't work.

Thinking through Lily's relationship with Paul, she said now, "she was trying to mold him. He was her fantasy of the perfect. She gave him every opportunity -- all the tools to be a Greek statue."

His disappearance leaves her to question who he is as a man.

Lily and June and Nathan show solid grief in a play that revolves around absences, around the two people -- Paul and his father -- who are not there.

And in their absence, the people who are there may begin to understand, possibly too late, that one essential thing people do is to connect.

If you go ...

What: 'Madagascar' by J.T. Rogers

When: Performances June 25 to July 6,

8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday

and 2 p.m. Thursday and Sunday

Talkbacks after the show, 2 p.m. Thursdays and 8 p.m. Saturdays

Panel forum after the show, 2 p.m. Sunday, June 29

Where: Chester Theatre,
15 Middlefield Road, Chester

Admission: $35 on weekends, $30 on weekdays, $17.50 Saturday evening rush

Information: (413) 354-7771, chestertheatre.org